There’s a sort of holiness in donburi’s simplicity, which is endless, permeable and variable. With its smoking eel just slightly grilled and settled over rice, every bowl of unadon I’ve eaten at Kuromon Market in Osaka, tanked in the mornings after cartwheeling with the gays through the city’s Doyamo district, has been the closest I’ve found myself to divinity. And no matter how sleepy or hung over or hangry it found me, each bowl of tendon that I’ve scarfed, standing cross-legged in a train station, has been just ethereal enough to carry me to wherever I’m going. Even just watching the glistening bowls of animated katsudon — fried pork loins, simmered in eggs — in animated episodes of “Yuri!!! on Ice” is cause enough to wonder what I sacrificed in a past life to warrant such decadence in this one.
But while every iteration of donburi is three kinds of magical, oyakodon is what I’ll always return to. The dish name translates to “parent-and-child bowl.” Seasoned chicken is simmered in dashi — alongside soy sauce, mirin and a dealer’s choice of flavors — before it’s ladled and guzzled down as the runny yolks meld with your bowl’s filling. While oyakodon’s exact origins remain opaque, one of its earliest recorded mentions may have come in 1884, in an advertisement for a restaurant in Kobe; by other accounts, the centuries-old restaurant Tamahide, in Tokyo, claims responsibility for the dish.
Tiny epiphanies: the chicken’s suppleness, the egg’s slickness, the reassuring tug of rice on your teeth.
My own forays at cooking it were, at first, failures. I’d overcook the chicken. Or I’d overcook the eggs. The seasoning wasn’t present, or it was entirely too heavy. Or my calibration of liquid to filling wasn’t quite hitting, overtaking the bowl of rice rather than collaborating with it. One of oyakodon’s joys is in how no ingredient calls too much attention to itself — it just works. And while eating a bowl cooked by storefront vendors, chain-shop chefs, train-stall owners or restaurateurs, all working at the highest levels of precision, certainly has its joys, cooking your own oyakodon constitutes a series of tiny epiphanies: The chicken’s suppleness, the egg’s slickness and the reassuring tug of rice on your teeth make for a meal that’s familiar and undeniably indispensable.
So there are as many ways to prepare oyakodon as there are chefs, and the formula mostly remains the same — but honestly, it ultimately comes down to feeling. My ideal oyakodon might not look exactly like yours, but both will be delicious. And when you’re cooking this dish, particularly for the first time, it’s helpful to take heed of the recipe, sure — but also to the sound of each ingredient as it simmers in your pan, and how the smell begins to envelop your kitchen as it nears completion. With every attempt, your preferences may change, and with every alteration you make, oyakodon becomes squarely, and decidedly, yours.